Tom wasn’t ready to speak about the things they’d done to him.

We arranged to meet for coffee at the old-age club in Val-d’Or, but when the time came he was overwhelmed with the weight of those memories. So he drank until everything was numb and then he drank some more.

“I’m sorry, this is hard,” he said, his eyes never meeting mine. “I need to get this off my chest, I need to tell my story, but maybe not like this.”

“They took all of our lives and they took our children’s lives too because we couldn’t be parents after the things we saw.”

We met again the next day in a homeless shelter where people played bingo in their winter coats. Tom and I sipped coffee in the kitchen. Years spent surviving the cold, dusty streets of a mining city had weathered his face. But he also had an easy smile and kindness in his eyes.

“They took me when I was a boy, maybe five, not much bigger than a baby,” said Tom. “Taken from the land, from my mother, from our village and into hell.”

It was hard to imagine the person sitting across from me as a little boy, but like generations of Anishinaabe, that’s when the worst of the abuse occurred. When he was a child, still scared of the dark and prone to crying out for his mother in the night, that’s when the state came for him.

In the tiny Anishinaabe village of Kitcisakik, almost everyone over the age of 40 was shipped to Louvicourt on orders of the federal government. The priest-run residence was known for its brutality; children as young as four years old were beaten, starved and forced to trade sexual favours with their captors in exchange for food or less brutal treatment.

Like Canada’s residential school system, Louvicourt was part of a federal program to assimilate Anishinaabe children by any means necessary. Agents coerced parents — many of whom couldn’t speak French, much less read it — into signing custody of their children over to the Department of Indian Affairs. Once they arrived at the residence, they were subject to all manner of abuse.

But Louvicourt was never formally recognized as a residential school. Its survivors never got to unburden themselves at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, they were never compensated for the horrors visited upon them and they didn’t receive a formal apology from the Canadian government — all because of a loophole.

While the dorm the children lived in was overseen by Indian Affairs, the school they attended was not. The children lived as wards of the federal government but took a bus every morning to a school on the Anishinaabe reserve of Lac Simon.

They gave them as little as possible’

Lawyer David Schulze is working with survivors of Louvicourt to force the government to pay for what it did to them. Last week, after over a year of legal wrangling, Quebec’s superior court authorized a class action lawsuit against Ottawa on behalf of the survivors. The case will be heard in April.

“Canada kept such a tight watch over Louvicourt that there was a memo that said, ‘Don’t let the kids go home with their snowsuits, those are property of the federal government,’ ” said Schulze, whose firm regularly advocates for residential school survivors. “We’ve got a school system that was 100 per cent funded by Canada, set up at Canada’s instigation, and it was inspected by Canada. There’s no ambiguity here.”

Kitcisakik is one of the few Indigenous communities in Canada that doesn’t exist on Crown land. In the rush to develop Quebec’s western border for logging, mining and hydroelectricity in the 1940s, the Anishinaabe were repeatedly displaced from flooding and clearcuts. They carved out a village near a dam in the La Vérendrye Wildlife Reserve near Val-d’Or but, to this day, most of the village’s 400 residents don’t have running water or electricity.

Some seemed to relish in torture, forcing the kids to kneel on a wooden ruler and keep their arms elevated until they passed out from the pain.

So when it came time to provide an education for the children of Kitcisakik, they were sent off-reserve to a residential school in Amos. After that closed in 1975, there was some debate about what to do with these kids. Would they be sent to the residential school in La Tuque, or the one in Pointe-Bleue, or would they build a hostel for them? They settled on using the old Notre-Dame de Louvicourt school and converting it into a dormitory.

The children would stay for most of the year and return to Kitcisakik for the summer holidays.

“They only arrived at this solution after the people of Kitcisakik asked for Ottawa to build them a school in the village,” Schulze said. “Indian Affairs said, ‘No, you’re not on Crown land, you don’t get a school.’ It’s part of a pattern with Kitcisakik where the feds could never settle on a permanent location for Kitcisakik so they gave them as little as possible.”

While the lawsuit hinges on this jurisdictional tug of war between Ottawa and Kitcisakik, there’s little argument as to how awful things were at Louvicourt. The residence was run by Edmond Brouillard, a Catholic missionary who would later plead guilty to six counts of sexual abuse against the children of Kitcisakik between 1975 and 1991.

Torture of children

Tom was one of his victims.

“I was a boy and I didn’t know about sex or consent or anything like that,” he said. “When your first sexual experience is being assaulted, you think that sex is just a thing you take from someone. That’s what it teaches you. I’m ashamed to say it turned a lot of us into abusers ourselves.”

The priest and staff used fear to rule over Louvicourt. Teachers hit children with closed fists, leather belts, shoes and wooden rulers for something as benign as speaking the Anishinaabe language. Some seemed to relish in torture, forcing the kids to kneel on a wooden ruler and keep their arms elevated until they passed out from the pain. Imagine torturing a nine-year-old with techniques that violate the Geneva Convention’s rules on prisoner treatment.

Kids were locked in a basement office for the smallest infraction, forced to take showers together and not allowed to leave their beds to use the bathroom at night. When they peed in their beds, the children were forced to take a cold shower and go back to sleep on a soiled mattress.

“Could you imagine (your kids) hurting, crying for you, but you’ll never be there to comfort them? The people who did this need to be held accountable.”

Fights between the 30 to 40 children who stayed at Louvicourt were tolerated and even tacitly encouraged. Some passed on the sexual abuse they’d endured from staff to their younger classmates.

“We didn’t think of it as abuse, they were just games to us, sexual games,” said one survivor in a document submitted to the court. “I didn’t exactly know what was being done to me.… I wanted to tell someone who worked there but my abuser kept a close eye on me.”

That survivor said it came on gradually. His first year, he was mostly just afraid and alone. The sexual abuse started in his second year, and by the time he was three years in, he had started abusing others.

Sometimes staff would force themselves on children or coerce them into performing sexual acts in exchange for protection from the beatings. Tom and one other survivor spoke about having to decide what they feared worse: physical or sexual abuse.

‘The people who did this need to be held accountable’

“What shocked me was I had never heard so many people talk about abuse between children,” said Schulze. “I’ve represented people who were victims of student-on-student abuse but I’d never heard of so much of it so consistently. That, to me, was pretty striking.

“I’m not a psychologist, so I could be wrong, but I see it as the product of the way they built the residence. When Louvicourt opened, the oldest kids would have been at Amos (residential school). It was known as a particularly bad residential school.… My impression is the level of abuse in Amos was worse than in a lot of Quebec residential schools.

So you take the oldest kids, who were at Amos, and then you put them under the responsibility of this priest, who is a predator, and then you keep filling the residence with very young children. You have fairly minimal supervision — maybe a handful of people for 40 kids with a big range in ages — and you just sort let things happen. It’s incredibly negligent.”

The school was shut down in 1991 amid a slew of questions from parents about Father Brouillard. For the next 15 years, kids were sent to stay with foster families in Val-d’Or and Lac Simon to continue their education. It wasn’t until 2006 that Ottawa finally paid to have a school built in Kitcisakik.

No amount of money will ever make Tom whole again. After Louvicourt, he developed a drinking problem and spent most of his adult life drifting in and out of homeless shelters. He’s been in federal prison, he’s seen some of his fellow survivors take their own lives and he’s often considered harming himself to end his suffering.

But Tom is also a fighter. He’s off the streets, trying to get a spot in a detox program and wants to one day become a drug counsellor.

“What I want the world to know is that we were children,” he said. “Look at your own kids, look into their eyes for a moment. Would you be able to even imagine them being taken away against your will? Could you imagine them hurting, crying for you, but you’ll never be there to comfort them? The people who did this need to be held accountable.

“They took all of our lives and they took our children’s lives too because we couldn’t be parents after the things we saw. Whether it was at a residential school or a residence overseen by the government, I don’t care. It’s the same thing and we deserve to be heard.”

This article was produced through The Rover, Christopher Curtis’s investigative journalism project with Ricochet.